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The thin Bluetooth line

I’m not a good driver. This is partly because I lived without a car in Manhattan for 11 years, but mainly because I consider driving a background activity. Sure, occasionally I have to steer or accelerate, but mostly I’m just conveniently moving forward while I text, eat, check out women, write down ideas, listen to NPR and return calls, sometimes all at the same time. Every so often, when I’m particularly fidgety, I’m sad there’s no such thing as man makeup.

So when I found out that cops can now pull you over for talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device, I wanted to know how to avoid a ticket. My first instinct was to buy a hands-free device. But then I realized I could ride around with a traffic cop, figure out what tips him off and just avoid doing that stuff.

Officer John Stafford was the worst person the Los Angeles Police Department could have given me. He’s so insanely nice and polite that he gets in trouble for averaging only 1.3 tickets a day, compared to three or four issued daily by most officers. “I gave three warnings yesterday,” he told me. “I can’t do that. I’ve got to write something.” We were in the squad car about five minutes when he asked me what I wanted to go do. I don’t know much about policing, but I do know that I should have absolutely no decision-making power over it.

Apparently, cellphone users have nearly disappeared since the new law went into effect. Still, I tell Stafford I want to go pull over some hands-free scofflaws. So he asks around and gets word that Melrose Avenue is the place.

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It turns out it’s pretty hard to catch someone talking on a cellphone if they see you in a cop car. So we get out on a corner and look for offenders. That’s when Stafford is approached by Chance Parker, a music producer with a lot of phone questions. Parker, shocked to hear cops can indeed pull him over just for talking into his phone, turns into a kind of cellphone Supreme Court lawyer. “Even if your Bluetooth goes out for a second, you can pull me over? What if your Blue- tooth isn’t working? You’re just basically like, lost call?” The law, as Parker learned, can be cruelly unjust.

We spot a lot more drivers from the corner, but it’s hard to pull them over from the sidewalk. Luckily, as soon as we get back in the car, we spot a guy in a Land Rover chatting like a man with no respect for the law or safety or America in general. We put on the lights and pull him over. He does not act at all surprised by this, even though the law is new and one of the people approaching his car is wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

The perp starts in with an excuse about his using Bluetooth despite what we both saw. Which, it turns out, I’m pretty sure is true. His phone, after all, rings straight into his car’s speaker system, which we discover when someone else calls him. Still, the dude held the phone to his face, so Stafford screws up the courage to write the $73 citation. “I’m bummed that I have to sit here and I wasn’t even on the phone,” the criminal tells me. “When I’m on Bluetooth I’ll chew on it or hold it up to my face. It’s just instinct.” This is a defense more typically given with a hangdog look and canine whine.

“Here’s your copy. Please be careful,” Stafford said, handing him the ticket. Then he added, I guess to be comforting: “Officially, you’re my first ticket of this new law.”

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Back in the car, Stafford seemed relieved. “It went real good. Boy, he was real cooperative. Real nice.”

Our missions accomplished -- he finally having written a ticket and I having learned not drive on Melrose -- I told Stafford that I hoped to see him again, though not while he was pulling me over. “I’ll let you go,” he said. I already knew that.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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